Washington Politicians agree 2017 NASA budget

Politicians on Capitol Hill in Washington have agreed to provide NASA with $19,508,000,000 as part of its 2017 budget. The figure, an increase on last year, but including mandatory spending (for James Webb telescope for example),will be allocated as follows:

  • Science $5,500,000,000
    • Includes over $2 billion for Earth Science to improve climate modeling, weather prediction, and natural hazard mitigation, through Earth observation from space.
    • Over $1.5 billion  for planetary science to explore the planetary bodies of our solar system, Including funds for missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa,continued operations of the Mars Opportunity, Odyssey and Express missions, and for the next New Frontiers mission.
    • $570 million of mandatory funding to ensure “on-time” launch of the James Webb Telescope.
  • Space Operations  $5,023,000,000
    • $2.8 billion allocated to Orion Crew Vehicle, Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS)
  • Exploration  $4,330,000,000
    • Includes $1.4 billion to continued funding of ISS. NASA also asked to report on feasibility of operating the ISS until 2030.

      ISS
      Funds have been allocated for continued ISS operations as part of the 2017 NASA budget
    • $2.8 billion for commercial space to develop and operate safe, reliable, and affordable systems to transport crew to and from the ISS and low Earth orbit.
  • Aeronautics $640,000,000
    • $299 million is allocated for research into the next generation of ultra fuel efficient civil aircraft
    • $210 million allocated to development of new X-Planes
  • Space Technology  $686,000,000
    • $580 million to develop transformative space technologies including green space propellant and a high powered solar propulsion system
  • Education  $115,000,000
  • Safety, Security, and Mission Services $2,788,600,000
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration $388,000,000
  • Inspector General $37,400,000
    • mainly dealing with auditing of NASA spending

The House debated the bill, the snappily titled ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017′ , on 7th March, after a successful debate in the Senate in February.

Senator Ted Cruz – Sponsor of NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017

It was debated in the House for less than 30 minutes. Following discussion, and virtually no objections, the bill was agreed by voice vote.

The bill will now be passed to the President, to become law.

 

This week in space 13th – 19th February 2012

This week marked as exciting week in space launches with 2 successful launches, a twice aborted launch, a 6 hour spacewalk and a postponed launch. Along with that was the initial submission by NASA of its suggested 2013 budget

VEGA
The first launch of the week came from the European space Agency (ESA), and marked the inaugrial launch of the new small payload rocket VEGA. This took place on Monday 13th February. The launch took place from the ESA facility in Kourou and VEGA launched successfully at 10:00 GMT.

VEGA at launch from Kourou
VEGA at launch from Kourou

The rocket, mainly developed by the Italians has been in development since 1998. As this was the 1st qualification flight of the rocket, dubbed VV01, ESA offered the payloads, which included 7 pico (or cube) satellites from European universities, LARES (a Laser Relativity Satellite to test various aspects of general relativity) and ALMASat-1. a free ride. The mission performed flawlessly. The VEGA rocket is 30 metres tall, and weighs 137 tonnes at lift off, which is 1/6 the weight of a fully loaded Ariane 5 rocket.

ESA hope that VEGA will allow smaller payloads to be launched into orbit at a greatly reduced cost. Time alone will tell, if this turns out to be the case.

SES-4

This week saw the launch, at the third attempt, of the SES-4 communications satellite. Originally delayed since late December 2011, this finally launched on 14th February at 19:36 GMT/UTC from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The SES-4 satellite was carried on top of a Proton-M rocket standing 58 metres in height, weighing 705,000 Kg at lift off. The upper stage of the rocket was a Breeze-M upper stage.

Proton-M carrying SES4
Proton-M carrying SES4

Manufactured by Space Systems Loral, the SES-4 satellite is a hybrid satellite featuring both C and Ku-band payloads and provides enhanced coverage and capacity across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Western Africa and Latin America. The satellites estimated lifespan is expected to be around 15 years.

First spacewalk of 2012

Cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov spent 6 hours in the first spacewalk of 2012. They exited the PIRS module at 14:15 GMT/UTC on February. Wearing the Russian Orlan spacesuits, the cosmonauts had issues getting out of the hatch and were 20 minutes late starting their work. The main task was moving the Strela-1 crane from the PIRS module to the POISK module. The crane needs to be relocated so that the new Russian module, Nauka, can be installed by the Russians later in 2012.

Work undertaken by first spacewalk of 2012
Work undertaken by first spacewalk of 2012

They also installed a material experiment on the exterior of the station, and took samples from the station’s insulation to access its quality in protecting the station and also to assess the damage it has sustained so far. Due to the earlier tasks over-running the cosmonauts did not have the opportunity to install new debris shields on the Zvezda module.

Cosmonauts spacewalking outside the ISS
Cosmonauts spacewalking outside the ISS

Launch delay

The launch of a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, carrying the Sirus FM-6 satellite that was supposed to launch in early March 2012, has been delayed for several months. It has been reported that technicians found problems with the solar panels attached to the satellite and that the satellite has now been returned to the manufacturer; Space Systems Loral.

MUOS-1
The launch of the US Navy’s Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-1 (Mobile User Objective System) was twice postponed last week. On Thursday 16th February, the pre-planned 10 minute hold that occurs at T-minus 4 minuites was held at 5 minute intervals throughout the 45 minute launch window. This was to process high level wind data being sent by high altitude weather balloons that was preventing launch.

Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 awaits launch
Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 awaits launch

A final poll of the launch engineers gave a “GO” for launch, and the countdown proceeded at 23:25 GMT, until 1 minute and 14 seconds prior to launch an abort was signalled, again due to high level winds. As the abort came so close to the end of the launch window, the launch was immediately scrubbed for the day.

Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 from across Cape Canaveral
Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 from across Cape Canaveral

The following day the launch was also scrubbed; this time due to clouds and high level winds.

Atlas V as the sun sets
Atlas V as the sun sets

Launch engineers have now scheduled the launch of the MUOS-1 satellite to occur on the 24th February at 22:15 GMT/UTC. The launch window closes 44 minutes later at 22:59.

NASA Budget 2013

NASA announced on Monday 13th February a $17.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013. The budget includes $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for exploration activities in the Human Exploration Operations mission directorate, including final close-out of the Space Shuttle Program, and funding for the International Space Station. $4.9 billion is allocated for science, $669 million for space technology and $552 million for aeronautics research.

What the figures don’t really show is that certain NASA budgets have been massively cut in order to continue funding the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Expenditure on the JWST, which has been plagued by cost overruns almost since the inception of the project, is set to increase to almost $700 million in 2014. To continue to fund the JWST, some projects, namely the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, in collaboration with the European Space Agency will now not go ahead.

The budget will inevitably be trimmed by Congress, and in future years NASA sees its budget staying fairly flat in monetary terms.

2011 Spaceflight and launches: A review

2011 rekindled, in a MASSIVE fashion, my love of rocket launches, space exploration and astronomy. As it’s the start of a new year,I thought I would compile a retrospective, biased account of what spaceflights and rocket launches excited ME during the past year.

Here are the bare facts:

  • 7 Nations (Europe, Japan, China, Russia, United States, Iran & India) launched at least one satellite into orbit
  • There were 7 manned flights: 4 Russian, 3 American. In total 28 people were ferried into space during 2011.
  • China conducted more launches than America in 2011
  • In total, there were 84 launches
  • It was the LAST flight of the American Space Shuttle fleet
    Fully retracted RSS showing Space Shuttle Atlantis
    Fully retracted RSS showing Space Shuttle Atlantis
  • It was the FIRST flight of the Zenit-3F (carried the Russian equivalent of Hubble into space) rocket
  • There were 6 mission failures
  • Contrary to what MOST people think, construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was NOT completed in 2011. It will be completed when the Russians send up their Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) later in 2012

In terms of planetary exploration:

  • The MESSENGER probe entered the orbit of Mercury, becoming its FIRST artificial satellite
  • GRAIL A entered lunar orbit, after a journey of 3 1/2 months
    GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
    GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
  • The DAWN probe entered into orbit around VESTA; the 2nd largest asteroid.
  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a probe the size of a small car was launched
  • Russia dipped its toes into interplanetary probes, after a 15 year gap, with Phobos Grunt; a mission to extract soil from the surface of Phobos (A martian moon) and return the sample to Earth.

Summary by Country

USA

The Americans conducted 3 manned launches during 2011. Some people may take issue with this but, the Space Shuttle Discovery is MY space shuttle.. Yes, the American government provided the funds, NASA and its contractors built and maintained the vehicle, and now, sadly, NASA is taking her apart, but in my own mind DISCOVERY IS MINE.

It was the 1st manned launch of 2011, and I was there to witness it. I witnessed the excitement,the sights,the SOUNDS. IT WAS AMAZING. HOW I got there is the story for another day.

Kennedy Space Centre showing Causeway
Kennedy Space Centre showing Causeway

STS-133 was the LAST flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Originally scheduled for launch in late 2010, the launch was delayed for a number of reasons including:

  • An orbital Maneuvering System vapor leak
  • A main engine controller problem
  • A Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate leak
  • Cracks in the external tank

Sounds like a long list, and it was. Total turnaround time was more than 111 days in total. Discovery finally launched on February 24th 2011 (and that almost didn’t happen as 5 minutes before the launch the down range computer froze and needed to be rebooted), and after a 14 day mission, that included 2 spacewalks, the installation of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module to the ISS, and the sending of a humanoid robot called Robonaut into space, Discovery landed safely on 9th March 2011.

It was followed by the final flights of Endeavour (STS-134), which carried the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-2), a device mounted on the outside of the ISS,designed to search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays. For more information, on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer click HERE

The final EVER launch of a Space Shuttle; Atlantis launched on 8th July 2011 (STS-135). It was mainly a International space station (ISS) resupply mission, and carried the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) named Raffaello and a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier (LMC). As an interesting aside, the mission also took the first iphone into space. Atlantis flew with only 4 astronauts; the lowest number of astronauts to fly aboard any Space Shuttle since STS-6 back in 1983. When the wheels of STS-135 slowed to a stop, on 21st July 2011, commander Chris Ferguson’s final words (see note below), brought an end to a 30 year program. It also usehered in an insecure future for NASA’s manned spaceflight program.

STS-135 Main gear touchdown

America has effectively ‘privatised’ low Earth orbit. No NASA launches will now take astronauts or supplies to low Earth orbit or the ISS.
NASA has issued funds to various private companies to supply craft that will do this. America is currently paying Russia around $60 million to transport its astronauts to and from the ISS.

A company called SPACEX was the first commercial provider to launch a rocket and retrieve a return capsule successfully in 2011.

SpaceX capsule after  first successful orbital flight
SpaceX capsule after first successful orbital flight (Credit: SpaceX)

It will, in February, launch a mission to indirectly ‘dock’ with the American segment of the ISS to provide supplies. America does not realistically expect to have a man rated craft (a capsule capable of safely transporting an astronaut to low Earth orbit) until around 2015-16.

Notable non manned missions, included the September 10th launch of the twin GRAIL probes to the Moon. These will map the Moon with incredible accuracy and hope to discover its origin. The first probe, (GRAIL A), successfully entered lunar orbit on 31st December. For more details of the GRAIL mission click Here

The other notable mission launched in 2011 was Mars Curiousity Laboratory(MSL), launched from Cape Canaveral on 26th November, atop a Atlas V rocket. It will test Mars’ habitability and whether or not life HAS or STILL exists on ‘The Red Planet’. To find this out, the rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the martian surface. It’s method of landing is truly revolutionary, and this will be tested when the probe is due to land on the Martian surface during August 2012.

CHINA

China were VERY active in launches during 2011, surpassing America in the NUMBER of launches undertaken, to slip into second place in the annual table.

The majority of Chinese launches were either communication satellite deployments (for China and other countries), Earth observation (including environmental monitoring, oceanography), COMPASS satellite deployments (COMPASS is the Chinese answer to the American Global positioning satellite (GPS) system) or military satellites.

Without doubt, their most ambitious mission was the launch of China’s first space station module, Tiangong-1, on September 29th, followed by the launch of the unmanned module,Shenzhou 8, on 31st October. Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou 8 then docked twice in early November before Shenzhou 8 was returned to Earth on the 17th November. While, NOT a manned mission, all preparations for this mission, assumed it was manned, even to the point of putting food into the Shenzhou 8 module. The launch of Shenzhou 8, was broadcast live over the internet and satellite TV channels to much fanfare. The dockings were also shown live, on state television.

Chinese docking in space
Shenzhou 8 approaching Tiangong-1 Credit: CCTV

While China, still labours well behind Russia and America in terms of orbital accomplishments, they are catching up fast. They are certainly a country to look out for in 2012.

RUSSIA

Russia launched, by far, the largest number of launches; 35, but also had by far the largest number of mission failures (5 if you include Phobos Grunt). They conducted 4 manned flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and carried 12 passengers (6 Russian cosmonauts, 4 American, 1 Japanese and 1 astronaut from the European Space Agency)

Even taking into consideration the launch failures during 2011, the Soyuz rocket is still by FAR, the most reliable rocket ever developed with more than 1,700 launches under its belt, going back as far as 1957, with the launch of Sputnik.

The 1st ambitious Russian science endeavour, of 2011, was the Spektr-R mission. Spektr-R is free flying satellite carrying a 10-meter radio telescope, and is an international collaborative mission consisting of Russia, Australia, Canada, Europe, India, Ukraine and USA. It will be used in conjunction with ground based radio telescopes to obtain high quality radio images of radio objects in the Universe. This was launched on 18th July 2011 from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Zenit-3F rocket. Currently the probe is undergoing final checks, before it becomes fully operational. Russian radio astronomers are very excited about this mission, and have in fact dubbed the 10m telescope, the “Russian Hubble”. Time will tell if this is the case.

TheSpektr-R radio telescope undergoing final tests
Above: Crowned with a 10-meter antenna, the Spektr-R radio telescope undergoes final tests. Credit: NPO Lavochkin.

In a 7 day period in August it appeared that the ‘wheels did come off’ the Russian space program. The failures started on 17th August with the launch of the Express AM4 satellite into orbit. Although the initial launch was a success , one of the subsequent burns to take the satellite into a higher orbit failed. AM4 Failure

This was followed by the more significant failure of the Progress 44P mission to ferry supplies to the ISS. The third stage rocket failed to fire correctly, and the rocket and supplies crashed into a Siberian mountainside.

This failure caused a temporary suspension of ALL Soyuz flights while a board of inquiry was formed to discover the reason for the failures. After a few weeks, it was determined that the Progress third stage that failed had clogged tubes supplying fuel to the engines, and that the failure of the AM4 satellite was due to a software error.

These failures caused the temporary, partial, de-manning of the ISS during the later part of the year.

The launch of the next manned Soyuz TMA-22 did not take place until 14th November and was a nervy affair. Thankfully, the launch proceeded without a hitch (although it occurred in a virtual blizzard) and the 3 man crew of Anton Shkaplerov,Anatoli Ivanishin and American astronaut Daniel C. Burbank entered the ISS on the 16 November 2011 for what is to be a 5 month mission.

The biggest blow, from a scientific standpoint, occurred the previous week (8th November) when a Zenit-2M carrying the Phobos-Grunt probe (a smaller probe from China and a microbe experiment from the Planetary Society) failed to leave Earth’s orbit.

Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe
Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe

Along with the Spektr-R mission, Phobos-Grunt was being seen as a renaissance of Russian interest in space sciences. The probe marked a return to planetary exploration for the Russians, after a gap of 15 years. The objective of Phobos Grunt was to land on Phobos (a Martian Moon), collect surface material and return this to Earth. After initially making it successfully into low Earth orbit, its rockets failed to fire to send it on its way to Mars. After exhaustive attempts by many agencies to contact the probe, defeat has been admitted by the Russians and the probe will return to Earth in early 2012. To find out more about the Phobos Grunt mission click Phobos Grunt stories

The final Russian launch failure occurred on 23rd Decmeber, when a Soyuz 2.1b rocket carrying a Russian communications satellite (Meridan 5) failed and parts crashed into the Siberian Town of Novosibirsk Oblast. Meridan 5 failure. Again, it was suggested the third stage engine had failed. This failure prompted Vladimir Popovkin,the head of the Russian Space Agency, to say the Russian Spacce Industry was “in-crisis” and required route and branch reform.

The very final launch of 2011 (scheduled for 27th December) was postponed when engineers spotted an anomaly in the Breeze M upper stage of the Proton rocket during preflight testing.

EUROPE

ESA (European Space Agency) consolidated its position with 5 flawless launches of the powerful Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guinea.
Ariane V204 Launch 1
2011 also saw the first launch of a Soyuz rocket from Kourou, as well as Arianspace’s continued involvement launching Soyuz 2.1a/Fregat launches from Baikonur with its collaboration in Starsem.

Notable payloads carried by ESA in 2011 included the Automated Transfer vehicle (ATV), Johannes Kepler, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in February. This was an unmanned cargo craft designed to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Johannes Kepler carried propellant (to boost the orbit of the ISS), air & dry cargo weighing over 7,000 kgs (15,000 lbs). It had a total mass of over 20,000 kgs (44,000 lbs),making it, at the time, the heaviest payload launched by the ESA. Once the ATV had been emptied, Johannes Kepler undocked from the ISS on 20th June, and burnt up on re-entry (by design) the following day over the Pacific Ocean.

ESA also launched the first two Galileo satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kourou. The Galileo satellites will give Europe a global positioning system to rival the American GPS, and Russian GLONASS systems). ESA also launched a variety of communication satellites for Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, India and the United Arab Emirates.

IRAN

Iran’s only launch in 2011, was on March 15th when the ISA (Iranian Space Agency) launched the Kavoshgar-4 (Explorer-4) rocket. The rocket carried a capsule designed to hold a live monkey, though no monkey was actually present. Since this launch, plans by the ISA to send a monkey into space seem to have been suspended.

INDIA

The ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) had 3 successful launches in 2011. All occurred from the Sriharikota space centre, North of Chennai, on the East coast of India. PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle)-C16 successfully launched 3 Satellites on April 20th. This was followed by PSLV-C17, which successfully launched GSAT-12 on July 15. Finally, PSLV-C18 successfully launched 4 satellites on October 12th 2011. India launchers carried more than 3800 Kg into orbit in 2011.

Indian rocket PSLV 18 launches
Indian rocket PSLV 18 launches

I’m sure there are launches i’ve forgotten, or missions I’ve missed. But there you are. This is a list of the 2011 missions that made me tweet. Follow me on twitter

I’m VERY excited about what 2012 could bring. MSL, GRAIL, DAWN, Spektr-R, Hubble to name but a few. “Let’s see what’s out there, TOGETHER.”

NOTE: A few moments after final wheel stop of Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson’s final words were: “Mission complete, Houston, After serving the world for over 30 years, the shuttle has earned its place in history, and it has come to a final stop.”

GRAIL probes successfully enter Lunar orbit

NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory has confirmed that after 2 separate burn operations, conducted 24 hours apart, that both GRAIL probes; GRAIL A and GRAIL B, have successfully been placed into their initial Lunar orbits.

The process started yesterday (31st December 2011), with the burn of the engines on the GRAIL A probe. This started 13:21 PST (16:21 EST, 21:21 GMT/UTC). Engine shutdown occurred after a 40 minute burn, and JPL soon confirmed successful insertion of GRAIL A into Lunar orbit. The initial orbit is 56 miles by 5,197 miles (90 kilometers by 8,363 kilometers) around the moon and takes approximately 11.5 hours to complete

GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit

Successful insertion of GRAIL A into Lunar orbit has been confirmed.

Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit
Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit

After a scheduled delay of almost 24 hours, GRAIL B burn started its burn precisely on time at 14:05 PST (17:05 EST / 22:05 GMT/UTC) on January 1st 2012 to place the spacecraft into an elliptical 11.5 hour orbit. This burn was scheduled to last around 39 minutes. The closest approach to the Moon was approximately 85 miles above its surface.

Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit
Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit

Over the next few weeks, the GRAIL team will perform a number of burns on both spacecraft, to gradually reduce this orbit from 11.5 hours to just under two. At the end of these maneuvers, and when the Science phase of the project begins (scheduled for early March), the spacecraft will be orbiting at an altitude of only 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the surface of the Moon. This science phase is due to last 82 days, at which point both craft will be deliberately crashed into the Moon’s surface.

For previous stories relating to this story, see:

1st GRAIL probe set to enter Moons orbit

GRAIL Launch

1st GRAIL probe set to enter Moon’s orbit

NASA’s twin spacecraft to study the moon from crust to core are nearing their New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day main-engine burns to place the duo in lunar orbit.

Named Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), the 2 spacecraft are scheduled to be placed in orbit over the next 36 hours. The first one (GRAIL-A) will enter orbit starting at 1:21 p.m. PST (16:21 EST, 21:21 GMT/UTC) today (December 31st 2011), while the 2nd probe (GRAIL-B) enters the Moon’s orbit at 14:05 PST (17:05 EST / 22:05 GMT/UTC) tomorrow (January 1st 2012).

Our team may not get to partake in a traditional New Year’s celebration, but I expect seeing our two spacecraft safely in lunar orbit should give us all the excitement and feeling of euphoria anyone in this line of work would ever need,” said David Lehman, project manager for GRAIL at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Delta II rocket showing GRAIL

The distance from Earth to the moon is approximately 250,000 miles (402,300 kilometers). While NASA’s Apollo astronauts made the journey to the Moon in around 3 days, the GRAIL spacecraft have taken about 30 times longer. They were launched atop a Delta 2 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in September 10th 2011,and have covered more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) to get there.

Grail trajectory to the Moon

This low-energy, long-duration trajectory has given mission planners and controllers more time to assess the spacecraft’s health. The path (see image above) also allowed a vital component of the spacecraft’s single science instrument, the Ultra Stable Oscillator, to be continuously powered for several months. This will allow it to reach a stable operating temperature long before it begins making science measurements in lunar orbit.

IGNITION!!!!

Close up of Delta II Carrying grail

This mission will rewrite the textbooks on the evolution of the moon,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “Our two spacecraft are operating so well during their journey that we have performed a full test of our science instrument and confirmed the performance required to meet our science objectives.

As of December 28th 2011, GRAIL-A is 65,860 miles (106,000 kilometers) from the moon and closing at a speed of 745 mph (1,200 kph). GRAIL-B is 79,540 miles (128,000 kilometers) from the moon and closing at a speed of 763 mph (1,228 kph).

After orbital insertion both probes will orbit the Moon every 11.5 hours. Over the following weeks, the GRAIL team will perform a number of burns on both spacecraft, to gradually reduce this orbit to just under two hours. At this point, and when the Science phase of the project begins, the spacecraft will be orbiting at an altitude of around 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the surface of the Moon. This science phase is due to last 82 days, at which point both craft will be deliberately crashed into the Moon’s surface.

For more information, relating to the GRAIL mission, click HERE

*** UPDATE 31st December 2011 21:49 GMT/UTC ***

Burn of GRAIL A seems to be going well. Probe engines have fired successfully and hopefully the probe will be in Lunar orbit soon. For Live updates, of the orbital insertion, visit NASA Solar System Eyes

Engine shutdown occurred a few moments ago. All seems well. Awaiting confirmation of successful insertion into Lunar orbit.

GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit

Successful insertion of GRAIL A into Lunar orbit has been confirmed.

Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit
Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit

GRAIL B will now start the same process tomorrow, starting at 14:05 PST (17:05 EST / 22:05 GMT/UTC). GRAIL B is currently just over 307,000 miles from the Moon.

*** UPDATE 1st January 22:12 GMT/UTC ***

GRAIL B burn has started to place the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit of around 11.5 hours.

Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit
Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit

Soyuz TMA-03M lifts off from frozen north

A Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft carrying Oleg Kononenko (Russia), Don Pettit (US) and Andre Kuipers (Holland) launched at 13:16 GMT/UTC (19:16 local time) on Wednesday 21st December towards the International Space station from a frigid Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Temperatures at the launch pad were only a few degrees fahrenheit (around -16 degrees celcius), and with a wind chill of an additional of 8-10 degrees fahrenheit, it was one of the coldest launches in recent Russian history.

Soyuz TMA-03M in snowy Kazakhstan
Soyuz TMA-03M in snowy Kazakhstan

In contrast to the last Soyuz launch though, rather than blizzard conditions it was a still and sunny launch day, but this only added to the coldness.

Soyuz TMA-03M just prior to sunset at Baikonur
Soyuz TMA-03M just prior to sunset at Baikonur

The Soyuz TMA-03M craft was launched from the same launchpad that launched both the first satellite into orbit, Sputnik 1, in 1957 and also the first manned mission, carrying Yuri Gagarin in 1961. The Soyuz family of launchers is easily the most flown, and most successful launch vehicle, with today’s launch chalking up more than 1,780 successful missions since the dawn of the space age.

Expedition 30 crew
Expedition 30 crew

All three of the crew of the expedition 30 have flown in space before.

Oleg Kononenko, the Russian, has almost 200 days in orbit having flown aboard expedition 17, and Soyuz TMA-12 in 2008, both as flight engineer. On this flight, Kononenko will sit aboard the Soyuz in the centre commander seat.

Don Pettit,an American, has flown in space for more than 175 days having flown aboard expedition 6 in 2002, and more recently on STS-126 in 2008. On this flight, the American will sit in the right hand seat.

The last of the trio, Andre Kuipers, is the first Dutch astronaut to venture into space for a second time. His previous mission was the Soyuz TMA-4 in 2004. He has spent just over 10 days in orbit. For this flight, Andre sits in the left hand ‘engineers’ seat.

Andre Kuipers being strapped in
Andre Kuipers being strapped in

The crew departed their hotel early today and while this occurred flight engineers installed the batteries in the booster, providing power for its upcoming launch. At 1:46 pm local time, the Russian State commission met and gave a “GO” for launch. The crew then arrived at building 254 at the cosmodrome and prepared for final medical checkups. Not long after that tanking of the Soyuz rocket began at the T-minus 5 hour mark. Tanking occurs up to around 90 seconds prior to launch. This is due to the evaporation of the liquid oxygen installed as fuel on the craft.

Soyuz TMA-03M with oxygen venting
Soyuz TMA-03M with oxygen venting

The Soyuz rocket is a 3 stage rocket. It burns Kerosene and liquid oxygen. The first stage provides 102 tonnes of thrust at lift off. This lift-off operation is slightly different than an American launch. At T-0 (ignition), the Russian rockets are gradually cycled through various stages of power. Intermediate power lasts for the first few seconds. During this time, a number of checks are made to ensure correct flight operation.

Soyuz TMA-03M rocket in "testing" phase
Soyuz TMA-03M rocket in "testing" phase

Only after around 6 seconds, and after all flight checks are successful, are the first stage rocket fired to 100%.

Soyuz TMA-03M rockets at full power
Soyuz TMA-03M rockets at full power

At this point the rocket leaves the tower.

Ignition
Ignition!!!!

Soyuz TMA-03M clears the tower
Soyuz TMA-03M clears the tower
Soyuz TMA-03M launch
Soyuz TMA-03M launch

The first stage is 68 feet in length and 24 feet in diameter. It consists of 4 strap on boosters and a single main engine. This 1st stage burns liquid fuel for the first 2 minutes and 6 seconds of the flight. At 1st stage separation, the craft is travelling at more than 3,300 miles and hour.

1st stage Separation of Soyuz TMA-03M
1st stage Separation of Soyuz TMA-03M

The second stage is 56 feet in length and 13 1/2 feet in diameter and provides 96 tonnes of thrust. It burns for around 4 minutes, at which point the Soyuz craft has reached an altitude of approximately 105 miles.

The third stage provides 30 tonnes of thrust and burns for 4 minutes and 2 seconds and provides the craft with its final “push” to orbit. At around 8 minutes into the flight the craft is travelling at more than 13,500 miles and hour.

After the 9 minute flight to orbit, flight control passes to Korov, just outside Moscow. When nominal orbit is achieved, the craft is flying in an orbit roughly 143 x 118 statue miles, travelling at more than 17,000 miles and hour. The Soyuz craft then begins what are called ‘time tag commands’. These are a sequence of automated command to unfurl the communication and solar array’s (spanning almost 35 feet) to allow the Soyuz craft to start its 2 days “catch-up” to the International Space Station.

Russian flight officials in Baikonur and Korov, near Moscow confirmed the flight went without a hitch.

At the time of the Soyuz launch the International Space Station (ISS) was flying 251 statue miles above the South Pacific, well west of the coast of Chile. The personnel aboard the station; Dan Burbank,Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin had the opportunity to watch the launch from a live feed provided by ground engineers.

The Soyuz craft will dock to the Rassvet module (the Earth facing side) on the International Space Station at 16:22 GMT/UTC (22:22 local Russian time) on Friday. Commander Dan Burbank has, where possible, decked the ISS for a ‘suitable’ welcome when their colleagues arrive.

Once the crew arrive on Friday, the station will be back up to its full complement of 6 crew. At this point, a period of intense experiment operations will take place. The occupants of the ISS will conduct more than 45 hours of experiments a week, between now and March.

As well as getting the crew into orbit the Soyuz TMA-03M craft will, when docked to the Space Station, serve as a lifeboat should the crew need to leave the ISS in a hurry.

Mars Curiosity poll

The Mars Curiosity Rover launched aloft an Atlas V rocket yesterday from Launch complex 41 of the Kennedy Space Centre.

The probe is the most complex device ever sent to another planet, weighing it at around 900 KG, it is the size of a small car. It will arrive on Mars in August 2012, and it is hoped will answer the question as to whether Mars has EVER sustained life in its past.

More Mars Curiosity launch images

Did you watch the launch? What was your reaction to it?

Soyuz TMA-22 docks with International Space Station

The Soyuz TMA-22 craft carrying two cosmonauts and an astronaut successfully docked to the Poisk Module on the Russian section of the International Space Station (ISS) today.

The docking occurred at 09:24 Moscow Time (05:25 GMT/UTC) on 16th November 2011 (11:24pm Central Time on 15th November)

The Soyuz craft docked to the ISS while both travelled at over 17,000 miles per hour, 248 statute miles in altitude over the South Pacific Ocean.

Soyuz TMA-22 docking with ISS (in background)
Soyuz TMA-22 docking with ISS (in background)

The docking of the Soyuz TMA-22 to the ISS marks a successful mission, so far, for the Russian space authorities, that have been plaqued with launch mishaps over the last 3-4 months. From the crash of the Progress 44 resupply ship in August, to last weeks launch issues with the Phobos-Grunt probe, this has been a stressful time, so there was probably understandable relief inside Roscosmos, NASA and the station itself, that this mission has gone without any issues.

SoyuzTMA22 / ISS Greetings
SoyuzTMA22 / ISS Greetings

The existing three member crew of the ISS; American Mike Fossum, Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa and Russia’s Sergei Volkov met their new companions; Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin and American Dan Burbank warmly. There will now be a short handover period during which time the ISS will have its full crew complement.
Top Row from left: Satoshi Furukawa, Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov. Bottom Row from Left: Anton Shkaplerov, Dan Burbank, Anatoly Ivanishin

At the end of this handover process, Mike, Satoshi and Sergei will return to the Earth, in a Soyuz craft, landing in Kazakhstan in Early December.

The next crew of the ISS will leave Baikonur aboard a new Soyuz craft (The Soyuz TMA-03M) , just before Christmas, on the 21st December.